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Week of 28 November 2005

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Monday, 28 November 2005
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08:55 - It's back to work for me, after an entire week off. I didn't even bother to check my email most days, and when I did I replied only to urgent mail. I'm buried now under emails that I need to reply to or take other action on, so please forgive me if it takes me a while to respond to yours.

Our friends, Brian and Marcia Bilbrey, spent the week here, along with their dogs Molly and Lucy. We went from a two-adult-two-dog household to a four-adult-four-dog household, and I think everyone, including the dogs, enjoyed the extra activity. Malcolm was surprisingly good. No fanging and very little growling.

Duncan and Lucy did get into it briefly, but things ended with no damage and no hard feelings. Duncan is a gentle dog, but he suffers from door-mania. Any time the mailman, UPS driver, or another intruder shows up at the front door, Duncan goes berserk, barking and showing his fangs. He'll whip around and nip anyone or anything nearby, including especially Malcolm, or my leg, if there's nothing else handy. (When Duncan tries to nip me, he instantly knows he's in deep trouble, and backs away fast. I beat him about the head and shoulders with a rolled-up newspaper to make it clear that I didn't appreciate being nipped.)

Malcolm has learned about Duncan's temporary door insanity, so whenever Duncan's door-berserkness kicks in, Malcolm hastily retreats from the foyer. Lucy didn't know about it, and was standing near Duncan at the front door when the mailman showed up one day. I tried to warn her, but Duncan turned on her and nipped at her, catching only fur. She backed away fast. I couldn't blame her. She's a 30-pound Cocker Spaniel being attacked by a 70-pound Border Collie.

But I was mistaken. She wasn't backing away to get away from Duncan. She was backing away to get a running start. She came running back toward Duncan, lept into the air, and landed on Duncan, with her front paws across his back and her fangs locked into the fur on his side. The look on Duncan's face was comical. Like me, Duncan was probably thinking of the fanged attack-rabbit.

Fortunately, no harm was done on either side, and both dogs seemed to get along just fine afterward.

Barbara and Marcia spent most of the week out and about, shopping and doing other outside activities. Brian and I spent most of the week sitting around talking and playing on the computers, per our usual.

Netflix throttling kicked in big-time last week. Through 11/19, Netflix had sent me 17 discs for the month, with zero throttling. The throttling kicked in when I returned three discs on Monday, 11/21. All three were acknowledged received by Netflix on Tuesday morning, 11/22. My queue then said that they'd ship me the next three that day. Finally, during the early evening of 11/22, Netflix changed my queue to report that two discs had shipped that day, with an ETA of Wednesday, 11/23, with shipping of the third disc delayed until Wednesday, 11/23.

The first two discs did arrive on Wednesday, 11/23, and Netflix did indeed ship the third disc that day. But instead of an ETA of Friday, 11/25 (Thursday 11/24 was a holiday), or even Saturday, 11/26, Netflix gave the ETA of the third disc as Monday, 11/28. They must have shipped that one from their Elbonia distribution center. I figured I'd screw with them a little bit, play some serve-and-volley, so I returned the two discs I'd received on 11/23 the same day, expecting them to arrive and be logged in on Friday morning, 11/25. Either Netflix also took Friday off, or they simply didn't get around to acknowledging receipt.

So, as things stand, I've received 19 discs so far this month, with one more due today for a total of 20. The two I returned last Wednesday should show up at Netflix today. If they ship the two replacements in time to arrive tomorrow or Wednesday, that'll take me to 22 discs for the month. Not quite an all-time monthly record, but very close.

At less than a buck a disc, I have nothing to complain about in terms of value for money. My problem is that Netflix still claims "unlimited" rentals, which isn't what they're providing.

One of these months, I may play some real serve-and-volley with Netflix, returning every disc the same day I get it instead of the next day. (Nothing in their Terms of Service says I actually have to watch the discs before I return them...)


Tuesday, 29 November 2005
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08:27 - Techies are truthers. Salesmen are liars.

About six weeks ago, Logan Heating and Air came out to do the fall check on our furnace, which it installed five years or so ago. We have a humidifier, which is basically a metal cube a foot or so on a side that sits on the side of the main plenum between it and the output duct. That box contains a motorized drum that spins slowly through a pool of water at the bottom of the cube. The drum is covered in foam. It picks up water and puts it into the air flow, thereby humidifying the air.

The guy who did the periodic maintenance said the drum was encrusted with mineral deposits and suggested I soak it in vinegar to dissolve them. I tried that, but after several days of soaking in vinegar there was no apparent improvement. So I had Barbara pick up a gallon of concentrated hydrochloric acid at the home supply store, and I soaked the drum for a couple days in a fairly strong solution of acid. That worked, and did the plastic drum framework no harm, but when I attempted to reinstall the drum the support assembly came apart. So I called Logan and told them I needed a new drum. The lady I spoke to told me they'd have to order the part and she'd call me when it came in.

We hadn't heard anything from Logan since, so yesterday Barbara asked me to call Logan and follow up. It turned out that they had no record of our order. The lady I spoke with told me that I must have talked with her predecessor, who'd left the company and apparently screwed up a lot of orders before she'd done so. The new lady said she'd check on the part and call me back in five minutes. It was actually closer to ten, but the phone rang a lot sooner than I expected. On the other end was Joe, a Logan techie/truther.

Joe told me that Carrier no longer made the part we needed. I asked Joe what alternatives we had. "Well," he said, "you could install a new unit. Logan sells a replacement for $550. But that's not what I'd do." (Note the "Logan" part; not "we" sell a new unit, but "Logan" sells a new unit.) He went on to say that the integrated humidifiers don't do a very good job. They simply can't put enough water into the air to make much difference. He suggested that we do what he did. Go down to Lowe's and buy a standalone humidifier for $100 or so. Put it in any heated room and it'll keep the whole house at 40% to 50% relative humidity. The downside, he said, was that you have to fill the thing with water a couple times a week and change filters periodically. But it actually works.

I'm now working heads-down on two books. I thought I had until 31 December to get the first two chapters of the new astronomy book to O'Reilly, but they want them by the 19th, so I have lots to do between now and then.


Wednesday, 30 November 2005
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09:00 - Netflix shipped me two more discs yesterday that are due to arrive today. That takes me to 22 discs for the month, or about $0.82/disc plus tax. That's an unbeatable deal, despite my frequent bitching about Netflix throttling me.

Presumably Netflix knows its own business, but I do wonder why they ship discs individually rather than two or three in one envelope, and why they don't encourage people to return multiple discs in one envelope. Postage costs, inbound and outbound, must account for a major percentage of their overall costs.

In particular, inbound postage must be a major cost. When I worked for the Libertarian National Committee during the 1980 presidential campaign, we did a lot of bulk mailings that included business-reply envelopes. As I recall, when someone sent back one of those envelopes we had to pay the 15-cent first-class postage plus a processing fee that took the total cost to (IIRC) 28 cents for each envelope returned. Back in those days, there was more manual work involved, so the post office may charge a lower percentage nowadays for BRE processing, but I suspect it's still significant. I haven't weighed a Netflix return envelope with two DVDs in it, but I'd guess it's less than one ounce. If so, that means it costs Netflix twice as much if I return two discs in separate envelopes as if I return two discs in one envelope. I always do the latter when possible to save money for Netflix.

I also wonder about their outbound mailing practices. Netflix would certainly incur additional infrastructure costs to set up each of their distribution centers to allow combining two outbound discs into one mailing, but I'd think the postage cost savings would quickly pay back those additional costs. Oh, well. It's their business.

I still haven't decided which planetarium software to use to generate the star charts for the new book. I'd like to use Cartes du Ciel (Sky Charts), but I need something that can output charts in a scalable vector graphic format to avoid the "jaggies" on lines and labels. The obsolescent Windows-only version of CdC offers only one option for that, Windows metafile. I'll have to talk to O'Reilly's graphics/production folks about that. If WMF won't work for them, I may have to use some other software. One possibility is Elwood Downey's XEphem, which can save charts as Postscript files.


Thursday, 1 December 2005
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09:25 - The start of a new month, the last one of the year. I'm not quite where I wanted to be at this point, but I'm not far behind, either. By the end of this month, we'll have reached the first milestone on both new books and be in full swing on both. As usual, I've blocked out a couple days at the end of the month/year for administrative stuff, everything from tax-related things to pulling full archive backup sets. Between that and downtime for the Christmas/Saturnalia holiday, this month is actually only about three weeks long.

And I haven't even begun to make plans for this year's ASG (Anti-Santa Gun).

2005 has been a busy year. I've had essentially no down-time from writing, with three books finished and two more started. We've converted 100% to Linux. I did my last-ever book in MS Word, and shifted to OpenOffice.org. I finally gave in and replaced my beloved Hitachi 751 19" CRT with a 19" Samsung 930BF LCD display on my primary desktop. Our last VCR has been retired, and we're now recording TV programs to DVD. We finally stopped paying Time-Warner Cable $50+ per month for dozens of channels we never watched, downgraded to the $6.66/month basic service, and signed up for Netflix. Barbara has a digital SLR. About the only change I expected to happen that didn't was replacing our standard telephone service with VoIP.

2006 will probably be more of the same. I'll finish the two books I'm just starting, plus another book not yet determined, and probably start on one or two more books toward the end of the year. We'll build several more computers as project systems, and eventually migrate them into our home network. The current machines will be cleaned up and refurbished and donated to local non-profits. We'll be running Xandros 4, and Microsoft will be only a distant memory. Barbara will finally retire her beloved Pentax film SLRs and go 100% digital. With luck, we'll get some clear weather and Barbara and I will be able to finish the Herschel 400 and several other Astronomical League observing programs we're working on. We'll drop our telephone service and begin using VoIP. More of the same.


Friday, 2 December 2005
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10:05 - Barbara's birthday is today. She turns twenty-thirty-one.

I'm really rotten at gifts. I tend to buy things and give them to Barbara as soon as they arrive. I actually bought the Pentax digital SLR for her birthday, but I gave it to her as soon as it arrived. Same thing for the DVD recorder. So I don't have anything to give her today. I did cunningly try to convince her to give me her Christmas list a week or two ago, but she knows me too well. As she said, if she gave me her Christmas list then, I'd buy everything on it and give it to her on her birthday, if not earlier. So, she emailed me her Christmas list first thing this morning, which leaves me out of luck for today.

Pournelle is on the warpath, upset again at Microsoft software. This time, he's annoyed because Outlook 2003 stripped out an .exe file attachment I sent him. I zipped it up and resent it, so there wasn't really any problem except that Jerry is rightly pissed about Microsoft treating him like a child. He's gradually coming around to the idea that he needs to be running his production systems on Linux or OS X. He'll reach the tipping point one day, but probably not this week. Maybe not even next year, but he will get there eventually.  It can't be lost on Jerry that many of his closest advisors have already abandoned Windows for Linux or OS X.

The advantages of being a subscriber. Sunday evening, I noticed that NewEgg had a 100-disc spindle of Verbatim 16X DVD+R discs on sale for $35 with free shipping. I should have ordered a spindle or two then, but I procrastinated. First thing Monday morning, I went back to NewEgg to order some discs and found that the sale had ended. The 100-disc spindle was now $55 with $4 shipping, or about 69% more expensive than it had been the night before. So I gnashed my teeth.

I nearly ordered a spindle at the higher price because I'm running out of discs, but I decided to wait and see. Yesterday, I noticed that NewEgg was again offering the 100-disc spindles of Verbatim 16X DVD+R discs for $35 with free shipping, so I ordered two spindles. Unfortunately, the sale was listed as being for only ten hours, and I had no idea when the clock had started ticking. So I immediately emailed my subscriber list to let them know of the opportunity. Many sent replies to tell me they'd ordered one or more spindles. This morning, the price is back up to $55 plus $4 shipping. Oh, well.

And subscriber Rich Micko tells me that OfficeMax has an even better deal: a spindle of 50 Verbatim 16X DVD+R discs for $15, although shipping costs may eliminate that advantage and the offer is limited to one spindle if you order on-line. However, Rich tells me that there's no limit in the store. He carried off all the spindles that were on the shelf at his local OfficeMax.


Saturday, 3 December 2005
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Sunday, 4 December 2005
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